Scientists shed light on mystery surrounding hepatitis B virus: Discovery is decades in the making

January 9, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Scientists from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the University of Oxford, U.K., have shed light on a long-standing enigma about the structure of a protein related to the Hepatitis B virus. Their findings, reported in Structure, could lead to new therapeutic strategies for chronic liver disease.

World-wide, some 350 million people are chronically infected with (HBV), of whom 620,000 die each year from HBV-related liver disease. Like any other pathogen, HBV expresses that trigger the body's immune system to defend itself. A relatively small and simple virus, HBV has three major clinical antigens that elicit an immune response: the surface antigen (which is also used safely and effectively to vaccinate individuals against HBV), the core antigen (HBcAg), and the e-antigen (HBeAg).

The HBV core antigen and the e-antigen are basically two versions of the same protein, but the core antigen is important for , while the e-antigen is not. The e-antigen plays a role in establishing and . In addition, the core antigen assembles into the shell (capsid) that houses the genetic material of the virus, while the e-antigen is secreted into the bloodstream in an unassembled form. The relationship between the e-antigen and the core antigen has been a mystery for the past three decades.

In the new study, the NIH scientists developed a unique antibody that binds to and forms a stable complex with e-antigen. This complex was found to form well-diffracting crystals whose analysis allowed the structure of the complex to be determined. They discovered that the e-antigen subunit has essentially the same fold as the core antigen subunit, but that it pairs into dimers (two associated subunits) in an entirely different way, with a relative rotation of 140 degrees between the subunits. The rotation obviates the protein's ability to assemble and transforms its antigenic character. This switch represents a novel mechanism for regulating a protein's structure and function.

Understanding the e-antigen structure provides a framework upon which future studies can build to fully elucidate its role in HBV persistence and possibly a way to prevent the establishment of chronic liver infections. For more information, visit

Explore further: Earlier treatment for young patients with chronic hepatitis B more effective in clearing virus

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Researchers grow retinal nerve cells in the lab

November 30, 2015

Johns Hopkins researchers have developed a method to efficiently turn human stem cells into retinal ganglion cells, the type of nerve cells located within the retina that transmit visual signals from the eye to the brain. ...

Shining light on microbial growth and death inside our guts

November 30, 2015

For the first time, scientists can accurately measure population growth rates of the microbes that live inside mammalian gastrointestinal tracts, according to a new method reported in Nature Communications by a team at the ...

Functional human liver cells grown in the lab

November 26, 2015

In new research appearing in the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology, an international research team led by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem describes a new technique for growing human hepatocytes in the laboratory. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.